In Other Words

Samizdat in the 21st Century

Russia's new literature of crisis.

Early last year, Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov published a report titled "Putin. Itogi," or "Putin. The Results." It was a well-documented, comprehensive, and absolutely damning critique of the corruption, authoritarianism, and general dysfunction of what they called rezhim Putina, or "Putin's regime." Most revealing was their economic argument: After eight years of Vladimir Putin's centralizing of the government and the economy, as well as the bureaucratic incompetence and cronyism his policies fostered, Russia had squandered the unique chance at modernization offered by the flush years of the early 2000s. Their conclusion: "The situation could be changed. But the current Russian authorities are neither responsible nor professional nor honest and, as such, cannot initiate change. The situation in Russia will change only when the Russians take the fate of their country in their own hands."

Despite the authors' credentials—Nemtsov was first deputy prime minister in the 1990s and a key reformer who later went into the opposition, and Milov was an early Putin-era deputy minister of energy who now heads a small Moscow think tank—their report circulated only as modern-day samizdat on the opposition Web site and later as a thin pamphlet with a press run of 5,000. And even among the small circles of what remains of Russia's liberal intelligentsia, their critique made no waves, seeming irrelevant at a time when oil was on its way to $140 a barrel. These days, however, Nemtsov and Milov are looking startlingly prescient. This is in part because of last winter's burst in the bubble of the Russian economy, largely based on oil profits that fell to less than half of what they had been, with GDP shrinking by a 10 percent annual rate in the first quarter of this year compared with the first three months of 2008, industrial production 17 percent lower this April than a year ago, unemployment hitting 8 percent and rising rapidly, the ruble losing half of its value against the dollar, and inflation likely to reach at least 13 percent. But it's also because the economic crisis has triggered a much broader reevaluation of the Putin-era political system. Even now, with oil prices rising again and Russia's stock market beginning to bounce back, for many, the crisis still points to what a missed opportunity the last few years have been.

Russia's failure, and Putin's role in it, is now the subject of an increasingly loud, surprisingly vigorous debate playing out on the Russian-language Internet—where a host of opposition Web sites publish untouched by heavy-handed Putin-era regulations on mass media—and in the pages of the struggling but still influential Moscow liberal press. Taken together, these writings make for a new literature of crisis, an intellectual debate that is not only about that classic Russian question, Kto vinovat? but also about competing visions of Russia's future, Chto delat? In other words, not just who is to blame, but what is to be done? Russia today is not only a country battling economic crisis, but one in a crisis of political identity as well. Out of the Russian intelligentsia's struggle to understand what Putin's rule has wrought springs an effort to shape the future: Now, at least, they know what they don't want.

As usual in authoritarian regimes, where normal channels of debate are blocked, it is hard to gauge the true impact of this inchoate and constrained simmering of dissatisfaction. And a quick economic recovery—or renewed surge in oil prices—could remove the new pressure it is placing on the political system. Still, there are several reasons to pay attention to the rumblings. First, most of these critics are not professional "dissidents," long ago marginalized by the Kremlin, but members of the intellectual establishment. Their insights about the political ramifications of Russia's economic crisis are all the more necessary at a time when most foreign analysis of Russia has concentrated on the economy and the U.S. State Department's finger is glued to a "reset button" that so far has activated only nuclear arms control negotiations. Moreover, the mere fact that Putin's detractors dare write as they do (until recently, many have been wary of criticizing the regime in such weighty terms) points to a possible change in the Russian political climate not unlike the very early glasnost under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 and 1987. At that time, much of the critical writing was dismissed as elite ruminations. Yet, after the censorship was lifted, these views were embraced by millions, precipitating the Soviet collapse. In this sense, today's critics might well be a bellwether of a coming storm.

A classic case of what the late Harvard University political theorist Samuel Huntington called "performance legitimacy," Putin's regime enjoyed widespread acceptance so long as income was growing by leaps and bounds. Putin's "authoritarian modernization" was in large measure inspired and justified by China's spectacular growth. But the Russian version of the "Chinese miracle" has been revealed to be yet another Potemkin village. For many Russian writers, thinkers, and activists struggling to understand the legacy of Putinism, there has been too much "authoritarianism" and precious little "modernization." As one of the most perceptive—and brilliantly sarcastic—Russian commentators, Yulia Latynina, has explained, in China the state tells entrepreneurs: Go ahead, get rich, and if there is a bureaucrat who bothers you, we will wring his neck. In Russia, the state tells bureaucrats: Go ahead, get rich, and if there is an entrepreneur who balks at the arrangement, we will bash his head in.

Looking around Russia now, Putin's new critics see only the ruins of unfulfilled promises and wasted wealth. Like Nemtsov and Milov, they rue the missed opportunity for a modern and transparent state and for a diversified, entrepreneur-driven economy, the foundation for which could have been laid under the more favorable market conditions of the early 2000s. "In all the years of the fantastic, unearned money, which gushed from the oil pipe as if from a broken bathroom spigot, we did not move a finger to diversify our economy," Nikolai Svanidze, professor of the Moscow University for the Humanities and a member of the Public Chamber, the Kremlin's top advisory body, wrote in March in the key opposition Web journal, Ezhednevnyi zhurnal. Simply put, Svanidze added, Russia has not learned how to make anything that would enjoy demand in the global market: "As in the 10th century, we still cannot offer the world anything that is not gifted to us by Mother Nature: no electronics, no clothes, no food, or cars, or medications, not even children's toys." Instead of emerging as a world economic power, Svanidze concluded, Russia appears to be headed in the direction of becoming "a cheap Chinese gas station."

Kto vinovat? Who is to blame? Following this narrative, it is the fusion of private property and power, unprecedented in Russian history, that brought the crash. This is what Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center meant when he wrote that those who rule Russia today also own Russia. From such a state has come a "boundlessly corrupt" economy "without competition, laws, and public oversight," argued Nikolai Zlobin, a columnist for the most respected independent Russian business daily, Vedomosti.

As such, Russia's meltdown cannot be defined as purely an economic crisis, Zlobin added: "It is a bona fide political crisis, caused by the failure of the entire model of governance, the absence of political and economic competition, the monopolization of power. It is a breakdown of Vladimir Putin's centralized state."

And Russians are beginning to agree. In a 2008-2009 survey by Russia's most trustworthy independent polling firm, the Levada Center, the share of those who thought that the country was on the right track dropped from 59 percent to 41 percent over a year, while respondents who thought Russia was moving in the "wrong direction" constituted 39 percent of the sample (up from 27 percent).

Of course, with television—the only source of information for an overwhelming majority of Russians—completely whitewashed by the Kremlin's censors, Putin has kept his Teflon coating. People continue to blame the year's hardships on anything and anyone but the prime minister or Dmitry Medvedev, the president he installed; their ratings continue to be very high. As happened with the Communist Party in the 1980s, it would take a combination of a sharp worsening of daily conditions and honest reporting of these conditions in the national media for the Teflon to start coming off.

Then, to that other question echoing down from Russia's revolutionary past: Chto delat? What is to be done? Across a wide swath of Russia's elite, including quite a few in or close to the government, many now believe it may prove impossible to navigate out of the crisis while holding onto the current political system. Even if higher oil prices boost the economy out of recession, there's a new awareness of Russia's vulnerability to crisis without more real structural economic reforms. A veteran observer of Russian politics over the past two decades, Lilia Shevtsova, put it this way: "Preserving the existing regime means preserving the structural sources of economic crisis." Her observation is no longer academic. Eventually, the Kremlin could face a stark choice: abandon the current, softer authoritarianism, which generally favors bribery and intimidation over jailing and killing, and replace it with a full-bore, hard dictatorship; or radically expand its political base by opening a dialogue with the opposition, liberalizing politics, and reducing the state's control of the economy. The first route will almost certainly be traveled without Medvedev, with Putin retaking the presidency. The other scenario has no room for Putin.

The allure of a reactionary stabilization is strengthened by the fact that many key components of such a regime have been introduced in the past eight years and are by now well-entrenched. As prominent essayist Leonid Radzikhovsky has pointed out in Ezhednevnyi zhurnal, all the major elements of the 1970s Soviet sensibility have been revived: the bunker mentality, the anti-American hysteria, the crude nationalist bragging, utter cynicism as a moral norm, the fear, the propaganda lies, the oil rent, and the power of a narrow, self-selecting nomenklatura.

By contrast, preconditions for a sustainable liberalization might be harder to forge. This would be an ambitious, complicated, and—with traumatic memories of perestroika very much alive—risky effort, requiring the dismantling of the worst aspects of Putinism and the creation of an innovation-based economy and a modernized infrastructure. Clearly, far more than purely economic reforms would be needed to start such an economy: Nothing less than a new social contract may be necessary. Until now, the philosophy of Putinism has been simple: Who needs tax-paying citizens, so long as one has expensive oil? But, if oil prices are no longer a reliable guarantee of growth, the Russian state may have to forge a new tax base: its citizens, who must be given in return the right to feel like viable political actors, complete with political liberties and self-government. This new social contract, as critic Dmitry Oreshkin argued in April in Novaya Gazeta, the leading opposition paper, could create a sea change in Russia analogous to the classical confrontation of "king" (state power) and tax-paying "town" (bourgeoisie) out of which civil and political liberties and eventually the modern democratic state were born.

But it's hardly the government's preferred option. Consider the long and unprecedented interview Medvedev gave to Novaya Gazeta on April 13 (not long after yet another of the paper's journalists was gunned down). Novaya's editor, Dmitry Muratov, said to the president: Look, by the terms of the old social contract, the state provided Russians with a certain level of "satiety and comfort" in exchange for their "loyalty." But now the old prosperity is gone and, with it, the contract of the fat years. Since neither the state nor society can cope with the crisis on its own, they need to create a new basis for their cooperation. What kind of new contract should they negotiate?

With his signature eloquent and informed obfuscation, Medvedev evaded the question. Instead, he talked at length about Rousseau, constitutions, and the rights and liberties of "man and citizen." Yet even such erudition cannot substitute for making hard choices in perilous times. Quite apart from the Kremlinological murkiness of it—who will be in charge a year from now, Putin or Medvedev?—the prevalence of the anti-Putin critique powerfully suggests that someone in the Kremlin may have to decide soon which fork in the road Russia will take. For if change is not initiated from above, it might come from below.